This June, the eighth edition of the PNI Summer Internship Program opened its (virtual) doors to eleven undergraduate students for eight weeks of intensive training and research. The goal: prepare aspiring scientists for graduate school by immersing them in a top-tier research lab while conducting their own independent research project. Interns are paired with a mentor to advise them during their research, and help them to decide if, when, and where to go to graduate school. This summer will be particularly challenging as the program, like most research at PNI, is virtual.
The Summer Internship Program started in 2013 with six students, a number that has continued to increase over the years (see fig. 1). Its primary aim is to bring undergraduate students with more diverse backgrounds and experiences to Princeton. Most interns come from underrepresented backgrounds in neuroscience research, as well as from small universities that do not have a strong neuroscience research program (see fig. 2). Interns are assigned to a lab based on their interests. They work on their own original research projects and participate in lab meetings and journal clubs. PNI offers these students an opportunity to work under some of the best neuroscientists in the world, their graduate students and post-docs.
Over the years, the program has become more ambitious, and crafted itself around the needs of the interns. One step towards building up the program was identifying a full-time director. Ed Clayton took that role in 2015. Ed understood that for the program to grow beyond its original programming, PNI would need external funding. In 2018, PNI was awarded an NSF REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates). With new funding, the program has been able to alleviate the financial hardship that entails coming to Princeton for an unpaid internship. The program now covers travel expenses, meal plans and a generous stipend in addition to housing on campus. In addition to Matlab and Python programming courses, faculty talks, and grad school prep activities, the program also now offers a GRE preparatory course and, most recently, covers the cost for taking the test. In recent years interns also benefitted from Princeton’s participation in the Leadership Alliance Program, which hosts an annual meeting in July where interns can give an oral presentation and meet graduate school recruiters from all over the country. Interns also gain access to the NSF graduate fellowship workshop, where they learn how to write an application for a fellowship before applying to graduate school. In the fall, they are invited to participate in the Society for Neurosciences Meeting, the largest neuroscience conference and research network in the world.
Coming to PNI means being welcomed into a research community. The summer internship is a social as well as a scientific immersion. Interns form their own cohort, but also share the life of a lab and participate in social activities. The program is equally an opportunity for mentors to learn to calibrate their teaching to highly motivated and talented students from more diverse backgrounds. It makes them confront their own biased expectations of students coming from smaller universities or underrepresented minorities. At the end of summer, the interns give a poster presentation on their research projects for the whole of PNI. It is a great opportunity for them to share their work and show how they have contributed to global research. They receive constructive feedback on their work from students, post-docs and faculty, and experience the exchange of ideas that is at the heart of science. The PNI program continues to support interns throughout the graduate school application process, in particular providing letters of recommendation and editing personal statements. Many interns pursue research careers outside the traditional scope of graduate school. The program connects them to labs across the country and helps them to secure research assistant positions. The results speak for themselves: over seventy percent of participants of the PNI Summer Internship Program are in research, and over sixty percent go on to graduate school (see fig. 3).
Eight years of careful refinement of the program will be tested in the coming weeks. Like most research in PNI, the program is virtual this year. Despite these challenges, the program is off to a great start and none of the eleven interns, chosen among hundreds of applicants, declined the offer. Some of the program’s content will not be affected: Matlab and Python courses, GRE preparation and faculty talks will continue in a virtual format. Most students are still able to work on their research projects. However, it will be hard to compensate for the lack of in-person social interaction with faculty, post-docs, graduate students, research assistants and among interns which is at the heart of the program. Being housed in Princeton levelled the ground for all interns. They had access to the same resources: internet, a quiet place to work, computers. This year, personal circumstances will have a greater impact on their ability to follow the program. All students who will not graduate next year were offered a spot in the 2021 program. PNI is committed to offering the best possible learning experience for the interns and those mentoring them. Online mentorship has its challenges, as we have all learned over the past few months, but it will be crucial to ensure the success of this year’s program.
Over the past eight years, PNI has opened its doors to underrepresented students to make Neuroscience more inclusive and diverse. Even beyond the former interns’ personal achievements, the success of the program is undeniable: graduate schools and labs all over the country have gained talented members and mentoring these students has been a rewarding experience for our own community. Though the program will be primarily off-campus, Princeton’s neuroscience community will do its best to make this virtual year as rewarding and successful as the others.
by Caroline Jahn